Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i In Focus i In focus 2010 i Theme: The hunt for highly skilled labour i Swedish work environment tempts Chinese

Swedish work environment tempts Chinese

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Oscar Berger is Sweden's Counsellor of Labour Market Affairs in Beijing. His job is to study the Chinese labour market and employment issues for the future - including Chinese competence and labour immigration.


Berger"Before the economic crisis hit we had started looking at where you might find specialist workers, but the crisis changed things. Still, we should consider the long-term when looking at the new legislation which is aimed at easing labour immigration," says Oscar Berger.

The post as counsellor of labour market affairs in Beijing was introduced almost at the same time as changes were made to the Swedish Aliens Act in order to make it easier for companies to recruit competent labour from abroad. The idea is to follow development on the Chinese labour market, but also to spread information about Swedish working conditions. Sweden and Germany are the only two EU countries with their own labour market councillors in China. As competition for well-educated labour picks up, many countries are expected to look to India and China. That's when the work of the labour market councillor could give Sweden an advantage. 

"I am here to learn how the Chinese labour market works," says Oscar Berger. He describes a labour market and an education system seething with rapid change. Each year some six million students graduate from Chinese universities and high schools. At the same time the quality of the education on offer is up for debate. A McKinsey survey five years ago concluded only ten percent of the Chinese graduates were suited for jobs in multinational companies. 

A traditional method of learning is memorising facts, but today many consider this to be old-fashioned and incompatible with the desire to compete on the international arena. That's why the education system will change over the next decade, according to a plan presented by the Chinese department of education.

Great interest in jobs abroad

The question is how interested the Chinese students are in working in a country like Sweden, should there be great competition for their labour. Oscar Berger performed his own poll among alumni in Shanghai in July 2009. The meeting was organised by the Swedish Institute and present were some 60 students who had either studied in Sweden or who planned to do so.

"There is generally great interest in working abroad, and those who have been to Sweden are keen on working there. The importance of building your international experience is one thing, but many of those asked said the Swedish work environment was one of the reasons they wanted to go there," says Oscar Berger. 

He points out that this was not a scientific poll, but says he has met others who know about Sweden and who paint a picture of a country they feel has succeeded in combining social responsibility with development. 

"We have something that many other countries lack - a responsible society where companies take responsibility for their employees and where there is good work environments and decent working conditions. These are things you could use in future marketing," says Oscar Berger.

A labour market with great differences 

He describes the Chinese labour market as very segmented when it comes to differences between people with various levels of education. There are also differences between cities and rural areas. 

Chinese working life can also be very tough and many young people experience a lot of pressure. There are other kinds of stress too. Because of the one-child policy young people are under a lot of pressure to succeed. They will also end up with a larger amount of responsibility for their ageing parents compared to earlier generations. 

We should also not be led to believe there is large amounts of qualified labour to tap into in China. The EU's Chamber of Commerce recently polled its members in Beijing, and 69% of them quoted the lack of qualified labour as their largest personnel problem. The biggest shortage is of experienced generalists on managerial level, and one prognosis shows China will need some 75,000 managers with international experience by 2030. Today there are between 6 and 7,000. 

The change in the Swedish legislation means the Swedish labour market has become an alternative for those who can find a Swedish employer. But here's the problem. Those who do wish do work in Sweden are uncertain about how to get in touch with Swedish employers. 

This opens the market for job agents or agencies, and many students who say they want to work abroad are open to use the services they would offer. This is not without problems, says Oscar Berger. The agents are poorly regulated, and they often charge students and job seekers too much. It can also present Swedish companies who are interested in Chinese labour with problems. 

"Similarly it can be difficult for Swedish companies looking for Chinese labour to find people with the correct skills. There is a matching problem," says Oscar Berger.

This is themeComment